The meanings of the word "rogue" - as in, "rogue nation" - have
developed in three stages. When people first began talking about
"rogues," in the middle of the sixteenth century, they had in mind
people who might now be called unemployed or homeless: a part of
the population which didn't have a fixed place to live or source
of income, and thus moved from place to place looking for ways to
survive. "Rogue" was a legal category of people whom the government
worried about and wanted to control; soon, it also came to mean
not only homeless/unemployed, but also "a dishonest, unprincipled
person." People used the word as a term of abuse for servants "you
rogue!" and also as an affectionate term for children, as we might
now say, "you cute little rascal, you."
In the mid-nineteenth century, these social meanings were transferred
to ways of talking about plants and animals. Darwin referred to
the inferior plants among a group of seedlings as "rogues"; elephants
expelled from the herd were "rogues," which in this case also implyed
that they had become savage or dangerous; horses, which like elephants
were also working animals, were called "rogues" when they avoided
the work of hunting or racing.
By the mid-twentieth century, "rogue" took on more abstract meanings.
In various quantitative fields like physics, it could mean a result
or phenomenon which stood out as very different from the rest for
no clear reason. This definition was soon extended to mean one of
a group of things which stood out as inexplicably defective or faulty.
Finally, it also came to mean something which is irresponsible or
undisciplined, something which should be controlled but is not.
Currently, the term "rogue nations" usually points to countries
the speaker feels diverge from "normal" behavior in ways which the
speaker's own country doesn't like, but can't control for instance,
by supporting or sympathizing with acts of terrorism against the
ordinary populations of other countries. Do any of these other,
older meanings help us think about political situations? Sometimes,
these nations may have been dispossessed or displaced, like the
rogues of the sixteenth century; these rogues were feared by those
who had something because they had nothing. Maybe the word also
carries the implication that a rogue is in some way believed to
be of a lesser order: it describes beggars, servants, children and
working animals. Most recently, we have seen the meanings of the
word change quickly from inexplicable difference to differences
which shouldn't be allowed to exist; we can also wonder if this
vocabulary includes enough tolerance for different religious and
Many people and countries want there to be collective standards
for how we can act, which everyone agrees to and abides by. The
down-side in seeing non-compliant groups or countries as "rogues"
might be in insisting that their motives can't be explained or understood;
or that their rights and interests are inherently less meaningful
than those of others.
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